Joppa was the ancient port of Jerusalem where Solomon imported cedar from Lebanon to build the temple. Jaffa, as Joppa is known today, is part of the Israeli capital city, Tel Aviv. The location sets up the world-changing events of Acts 10.
The alert Bible reader will recall that Joppa was the place to which the prophet Jonah fled to escape God’s command to warn the wicked city of Nineveh of impending judgment. Jonah had no intention of preaching to non-Jewish people. Especially if it meant that the hated Assyrian overlords might be delivered. Jonah had a sneaking suspicion that God might be merciful. He wanted judgment.
Luke intends us to make this connection. By referencing Joppa and using Peter’s given name Simon – we’re meant to remember that he is Simon bar Jonah – he wants us to recall the story of the runaway prophet. He is laying the groundwork to challenge Jewish prejudice.
So far, the early followers of Jesus had successfully evaded his clear command to go to all nations. Only Jewish people heard the good news. Peter should have known this.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household …
Caesarea Maritima was the capital of the Roman province of Judea and the main garrison for Roman troops. It was located on the coastal plain about halfway between present-day Tel Aviv and Haifa. Herod the Great built a beautiful Roman city in honour of Octavian, Caesar Augustus between 23—12 BCE, constructing a breakwater and deepening the harbour so that it could be used as a major port.
Cornelius was a centurion, backbone of the Roman army. His rank was roughly equivalent to a captain, the cohort he commanded comprised 300 to 600 soldiers. He was a devout man who evidently had been attracted to Israel’s God, though he was a god-fearer, not a proselyte. His family and some of his men had been influenced by his faith, which manifested in prayer and generous giving.
At about three o’clock one afternoon, Cornelius had a vision of an angel who called him by name. Terrified, he managed to ask, ‘What is it Lord’. The angel commanded him to send men to Joppa to fetch Simon who is called Peter, who was staying with Simon the tanner in a house by the sea. Cornelius did as he was told, sending some servants to Joppa to look for Peter.
The next day at about midday as Cornelius’ delegation was approaching Joppa, Peter went up to the rooftop of Simon’s house to pray. Feeling a bit hungry, he asked his hosts to make him some lunch. While he was waiting he fell into a trance.
He saw the heavens opened and a large sheet being lowered by the corners towards him. In the sheet were all kinds of animals, including reptiles and birds—a mixture of clean and unclean animals. A voice commanded, ‘Get up Peter. Kill and eat.’
Although Peter does not seem to have been a particularly scrupulous Jew, he was horrified. ‘No way,’ he said. ‘I’ve never eaten anything unclean.’
The voice replied, ‘Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean.’
This happened three times, leaving Peter puzzled about the vision and the riddle.
The Jewish dietary laws, found in Leviticus 11, were (and still are) very important to devout Jewish people. The interesting thing is that not all of the animals in the sheet were unclean. Some of the four-footed beasts and some birds could be eaten by Jewish people. Clean animals and unclean animals were mixed up together.
While Peter was wondering about his vision, the men from Cornelius arrived at the gate and called out, asking for Peter. The Spirit spoke to Peter saying, ‘Three men are looking for you. Don’t hesitate to go with them. I have sent them.’
Maybe the penny dropped for Peter. God’s new people will be a mixed bunch. The ‘clean’ (Jewish people) and the ‘unclean’ (the rest of us) all together in the one family. It is unlikely that all of this immediately occurred to Peter. But a least he realised that God was telling him to go with the three men and speak with Cornelius and his household.
Perhaps God’s good news was for everyone, like Jesus said.
Two things stand out to me in this passage.
Dealing with our Prejudices
Firstly, prejudice against a group of people. Peter’s cultural background guaranteed that he was deeply prejudiced against non-Jewish people. His family’s practice for all of his life, his community, even his bible told him that he should have nothing to do with non-Jewish people. They were unclean, and certain types of interactions with them, like eating together, would make him unclean (unable to participate in worship without performing certain cleansing rituals).
It is easy for us to judge Peter. Even though Jesus had taught his disciples that food cannot make a person unclean (Mk 6), they didn’t get it. Not yet. It is hard to change the habits of a lifetime. Or for that matter the habits of people who have lived a certain way for a thousand years.
God was doing something new and he was doing it through the disciples of Jesus. The mission of Jesus (to the nations) depended on it.
So, what is in your sheet? Who are the people that your prejudice excludes from your life? Who are the ones that you would never associate with?
It may be LGBTQI+ people (pretty common for Christians). Muslims? Or it might be foreigners, refugees and asylum seekers (though this is less likely if you live in the southwest of Sydney and are part of this church). Maybe its Liberal voters. Or the Nationals. Or One Nation supporters. Anti-vaxxers. Q-anon crazies. Climate deniers. Or maybe its people like me who might vote Green.
It is important that from time to time, we come before the Lord to do a heart-check, asking the Holy Spirit to show us whether or not we have developed a prejudice that separates us from certain kinds of people. How do we build bridges rather than walls?
I’ll leave the other thing for another post.